August 20, 2013

How safe are you on the road?

With the potential for so many repeat OUI offenders getting behind the wheel again, the question arises: Why doesn't Maine have a provision to revoke driving privileges for good?

By David Hench dhench@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

and Eric Russell erussell@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

(Continued from page 1)

Today's poll: Drunk driving penalties

Should Maine have tougher penalties for people with multiple drunk driving convictions?

Yes

No

View Results

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A sign warns motorists of a sobriety checkpoint on Route 1 in Brunswick.

Photos by Carl D. Walsh/Staff Photographer

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Drunken driving offenses in Maine
 
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In April 2006, shortly after he got his license back, he was picked up again with a blood alcohol content of 0.13 percent.

Under current law, he should have had his license suspended for 18 months and been sentenced to seven days in jail. But he received almost the same penalty as for a first offense: a $750 fine, suspended sentence and 90-day license suspension. Bureau of Motor Vehicles staff could not say why his penalty wasn't more punitive.

At 6 p.m. on Aug. 2, a witness saw Labonte apparently asleep at the wheel as he drove his pickup truck on Elm Street in Biddeford. He made no effort to swerve or apply the brakes before drifting into the oncoming lane and onto the sidewalk, slamming into a family on bicycles.

The father, Jamerico Elliott, 52, died several days later. His 17-month-old son, Lavarice Elliott, remains hospitalized; he was listed in fair condition Saturday evening at Maine Medical Center in Portland. The boy's mother, Melodie Brennan, 31, suffered a broken ankle.

Blood tests showed Labonte's blood alcohol content was between 0.15 and 0.17 percent, twice the 0.08 legal limit for driving. At the time, Labonte carried a conditional license that forbade him from having any alcohol in his system.

Labonte is just the latest example of high-profile cases involving offenders who amassed multiple OUIs.

In 2002, Randal Horr of Windham was convicted of his 13th OUI after being pulled over at the Westbrook-Portland line. He was sentenced to 11 years behind bars, the longest sentence in state history at the time for a habitual offender who hadn't caused an injury.

Milo White of Weston was sentenced in 2011 in Aroostook County Superior Court to almost six years in prison after his 12th conviction for drunken driving. He hadn't had a valid license in the previous 27 years but still drove regularly.

Robert Pineo was sentenced to 15 years in 2001 after he crashed into a mother and daughter in Scarborough. It was his seventh drunken driving conviction. He had already been in an alcohol-related crash 15 years earlier for which he had been sentenced to the maximum 10 years allowed.

Samuel Burgess III was sentenced to eight years in prison in 2011 for his third drunken driving conviction. His first drunken driving arrest led to a manslaughter conviction after a crash that killed a passenger.

Last year, Maine had 48 alcohol-related traffic fatalities out of 164 fatal crashes overall. That was up from 23 alcohol-involved fatals in 2011.

The 23 drunken driving fatals in 2011 represented 17 percent of the total 136 fatal crashes that year, the lowest percentage of alcohol-related fatal crashes in the country that year.

CRACKING DOWN

Decades ago, Maine was at the forefront in cracking down on drunken driving. In 1981, the state became just the second state to institute a mandatory penalty for a first-time conviction. In 1988, it was the third to lower the blood-alcohol threshold to 0.08 percent. In 1994, Maine was among the first states to call for harsher penalties for repeat offenders.

However, Maine is no longer as strict as other states in revoking the licenses of those with multiple OUIs or increasing the 10-year license review period.

"We were way out front and then we kind of plateaued and other states caught on," said Bill Diamond of Windham, a former lawmaker and Maine's secretary of state from 1989 to 1996.

Although it is poised to increase, the minimum penalty for a first OUI in Maine is a 90-day license suspension. That is among the lowest license suspension penalties, although 16 states have lower penalties, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

(Continued on page 3)

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Additional Photos

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A motorist walks a line while being assessed for sobriety at a checkpoint set up Friday on Route 1 in Brunswick by Cumberland County police assigned to the Regional Impaired Driving Enforcement, or RIDE, team. Maine records going back to 1982 show that nearly 15,000 people have at least three prior cases of operating under the influence.

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Brunswick Police Officer John Roma and other Cumberland County officers conduct sobriety checks Friday.

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Cumberland Police Officer Ryan Martin, below, conducts a field sobriety test Friday.

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Police cuff a drunken driving suspect.

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Today's poll: Drunk driving penalties

Should Maine have tougher penalties for people with multiple drunk driving convictions?

Yes

No

View Results